Fine Gael’s commitments are set in concrete, while Fianna Fáil has the tactical advantage of manoeuvrability, writes Gerard Howlin
In seven years’ time, Fianna Fáil will be one hundred years old.
After narrowly escaping a final demise in the aftermath of a devastating election result in 2011, it may, like its founders in the early 20th century, have an opportunity to fundamentally shape the political contours of the century ahead.
The fact that it still exists, and is in contention to become again the main party in government with its leader as Taoiseach, is Lazarus like.
The loss of 51 of its 71 Dáil seats in 2011 was only a metric, however. The cause was incredible public anger after the economic crash. The reputational damage was intense.
Voters delivered the third largest turnover of parliamentarians in any Western democracy since the Second World War. That is the scale of what Fianna Fáil caused, and suffered. The consequences are permanent.
In the thicket of events, it is easy to lose sight of completely changed circumstances now. There is no going back for Fianna Fáil.
The longevity and scale of its hegemony was not just an outcome of unrepeatable historic events. It was a society that was politically tribal but socially cohesive.
The long afterlife of that older Fianna Fáil, even as that culture ebbed away from the 1960s was overlain by a capacity for periodic economic competence. It enacted in power the politics of speaking for people who hadn’t a lot but were determined to move on up. Council housing estates and free second level education are examples.
Its populism, and a physical presence in and close attention to working-class areas stymied the Irish left. To use the lingo of management speak, its political supply chain was vertically integrated.
Bread and circus were certainly part of the formula. So too was substantive political achievement. The 1937 constitution, the Emergency and the 42 years between Seán Lamass’s visit to Stormont and via the Good Friday Agreement the establishment of a power-sharing executive there in 2007 were not exclusively Fianna Fáil projects but were largely so. This is the scale of coming events, looming again.
The next government, if it enjoys a five-year term from 2020 to 2025, will deal not just with Britain leaving the European Union, but the consequence for Ireland of the threat to the unity of the United Kingdom.
Scottish independence may not play out within five years. But the prospect will have a fundamental effect. Nearly half a century of constitutional development and political agreement were based on two facts.
Firstly Ireland and the UK share common membership of the EU. Secondly, our bilateral relationship is with what we historically called the United Kingdom. The context for Fianna Fáil is that it’s past belongs to a vanished Ireland. Its future, as a relevant political force, is where the contours of the past century will now completely change again.
Marshalling votes in 40 constituencies and squaring the circle with special interests is one requirement. Demonstrating if not the detail, then certainly the capacity to lead in unprecedented circumstances of real threat is another for Fianna Fáil.
The next election will be the first since 2007 when there is a real contest for power. The trends opinion polls offer, for now, is for a tight race. If it is true that oppositions don’t win elections and governments lose them then Fianna Fáil has some ground for optimism.
The party’s strategy of keeping Fine Gael in power, in circumstances where it has no junior partner in government with it, to soak up blame, is bearing dividends. Micheál Martin now leads a parliamentary party with 44 seats in the Dáil.
He has 279 councillors, an increase of 12 in last month’s local elections and two MEPs. Critically many are new people, with energy.
Fianna Fáil’s opportunity coming into an election within months or at least in the next year is that Fine Gael and Sinn Féin are on the back foot, the latter seriously so.
Its challenge is to expand on both fronts among middle class and working class voters. To do that it must have the right combination of candidates, and policies which are tested and costed.
It is astonishing, despite its deep instincts for prudence, and indelible commitments never to repeat the errors of our recent past, Fine Gael has ceded ground on economic competence.
The diminution of Fine Gael credibility together with the passage of time has put Fianna Fáil back in play on the economy. This is exactly the moment all economic signals are flashing amber.
Tax cuts, Leo Varadkar’s signature policy, now lack credibility. Ratcheting up public spending by government has left us on thin ice fiscally.
As the ESRI warned last week, an economy on the verge of full capacity may need tax increases to cool the jets.
Fianna Fáil’s asset is that it learnt one lesson of the past and hasn’t gone down the tax cut route. It is still addicted to public spending, however. Its attitude to powerful public sector unions is to deliver on demand.
Its spokespeople have added to the pressure to prioritise public pay over public services. Social partnership may be over, but there is good reason to suspect Fianna Fáil of recidivism.
The contrast between it and Fine Gael on public spending is not clear cut. For that, given government vulnerability on the issue, Fianna Fáil has only itself to blame. It has a clearly competent Finance spokesperson in Michael McGrath.
Its Public Expenditure spokesperson Barry Cowen has made no mark yet in the role. If Fianna Fáil is to close the deal with the electorate later this year or next, it should relearn the lesson of Fine Gael’s lost opportunity in 2007.
Then, in our last real electoral contest, voters to begin with seemed determined to be rid of Fianna Fáil. A third term seemed impossible. The team was tired, but wily. It met an inadequately prepared Fine Gael. Their sums didn’t add up.
Brian Cowen demolished their economic policy. Momentum stalled, and in the end Enda Kenny couldn’t land a punch on Bertie Ahern in the debate. Fianna Fáil won.
Most punters lost their bets. As of now, Fianna Fáil has a job of work to do to write a costed manifesto that deals with its IOUs and compares clearly with Fine Gael commitments.
Fianna Fáil’s advantage is that because Fine Gael is in government, its commitments are set in concrete. Fianna Fáil has the tactical advantage of manoeuvrability.
It is a manoeuvre it should execute swiftly and convincingly. Fianna Fáil’s electoral test will happen against the context of extraordinary challenges.
Sinn Féin’s commitment to a border poll is toxic tribalism that must be avoided at all costs.
As an Irish response to the disintegration of the historical context of the past fifty years, it brings us back to the worst forms of communalism.
Their urge to ape James Craig and annex another community, is an opportunity for Fianna Fáil to restate its view of Irish unity, based not just on ratification with a sectarian headcount, but on a genuine harmony.
Slow republicanism, is the only wholesome one.
Here the party has a great legacy.
Imminent events now give that legacy a new context.
Their challenge is to credibly withstand charges of profligacy, to display competency and credibly lead out with a vision for circumstance which will leave little of what we assume, intact.